The commercial era for local journalism is over

“The journalism crisis can’t be solved by individuals alone, whether average subscribers or rich benefactors. We’re facing a collective action problem that demands government intervention.”

Amid the wreckage of our local news media, this coming year will witness the early shoots of a new post-commercial journalism. Driving this transformation will be two trajectories of structural reform — one salvaging what’s left of existing newsrooms, the other expanding public infrastructures to provide access to news and information for all Americans.

Signs of this shift are already afoot. Philanthropic initiatives such as the American Journalism Project and Report for America are putting more journalists on the beat. The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Salt Lake Tribune are proofs of concept that struggling newspapers can transition into public benefit and nonprofit institutions. And shining exemplars of nonprofit journalism, such as The Texas Tribune and City Bureau, continue to flourish.

Meanwhile, state governments are subsidizing journalism in New Jersey with the Civic Information Consortium and in Ohio with its long-established Statehouse News Bureau. Even Congress, ever slow to treat the journalism crisis as a policy problem, has begun proposing legislation to save local news media.

Promising ideas, many of which overlooked for years, are gaining traction, from bringing struggling newspapers under local nonprofit ownership to creating a national journalism trust fund. Other proposals aim to resurrect largely forgotten experiments from American history, ranging from municipal newspapers to a new federal writers’ project.

These are all grounds for cautious optimism, but even bolder plans are necessary to confront systemic market failure and sustain the journalism that democracy needs. Although we must prevent vulture capitalists from further dismantling newsrooms — while also restructuring legacy outlets to become less market-dependent — most of these efforts will leave predictable gaps beyond cities and elite readerships. With news deserts rapidly expanding across the US, many local media landscapes are already barren with nothing left to resuscitate.

What’s more, entire groups of people, especially communities of color and poor neighborhoods, have never been properly served by local news media. These news divides — exacerbated by a gaping digital divide — will only worsen as local journalism continues to vanish. Such informational redlining is unacceptable for any democratic society.

While private capital from philanthropists and foundations might rescue an outlet here and there, we can’t rely solely on charitable contributions to remedy deep structural inequities. Committed readers willing and able to pay for their news might sustain a few niche outlets or large national newspapers like The New York Times, but subscription models simply won’t suffice for most communities. The journalism crisis can’t be solved by individuals alone, whether average subscribers or rich benefactors. We’re facing a collective action problem that demands government intervention.

Ensuring that all Americans can access a baseline level of reliable news and information requires a federally guaranteed, public media center in every community. Guided by a universal service mission, these multi-media hubs will look like and be governed by the communities they serve. How could this work?

Community newsrooms could be built upon existing public infrastructures — especially public broadcasting and the postal system — and financed by a combination of individual tax vouchers and federal block grants distributed to every county based on population. Public libraries and universities could also help sustain a new public media network — including municipal broadband services — that’s federally funded, decentralized, and democratized under community ownership and control.

2021 might be the year we finally begin building this new public media system. But first we must give up the fantasy that benevolent billionaires, new startups, or the Facebook/Google duopoly will save journalism. We wasted a decade searching for some whiz-bang app or ingenious business model. But a viable business model for local news no longer exists — and besides, journalism shouldn’t be seen as a business, but as a public service. Trusting the market to deliver the news that we need is a fool’s errand.

To be sure, some for-profit outlets will survive — even thrive — but the majority of our information needs must be served by the nonprofit and public sectors. We must face the fact that the commercial era for local journalism is over.

Restructuring our media and communication infrastructures should be part of a broader democracy movement that seeks to transform core institutions, decommodify essential public services, and redress long-standing harms, especially those caused by media institutions misrepresenting and excluding communities of color. By unshackling our media from the market and rebuilding news and information systems from the ground up, we can empower journalists and local communities—and save our democracy in the process.

Victor Pickard is an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.

Amid the wreckage of our local news media, this coming year will witness the early shoots of a new post-commercial journalism. Driving this transformation will be two trajectories of structural reform — one salvaging what’s left of existing newsrooms, the other expanding public infrastructures to provide access to news and information for all Americans.

Signs of this shift are already afoot. Philanthropic initiatives such as the American Journalism Project and Report for America are putting more journalists on the beat. The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Salt Lake Tribune are proofs of concept that struggling newspapers can transition into public benefit and nonprofit institutions. And shining exemplars of nonprofit journalism, such as The Texas Tribune and City Bureau, continue to flourish.

Meanwhile, state governments are subsidizing journalism in New Jersey with the Civic Information Consortium and in Ohio with its long-established Statehouse News Bureau. Even Congress, ever slow to treat the journalism crisis as a policy problem, has begun proposing legislation to save local news media.

Promising ideas, many of which overlooked for years, are gaining traction, from bringing struggling newspapers under local nonprofit ownership to creating a national journalism trust fund. Other proposals aim to resurrect largely forgotten experiments from American history, ranging from municipal newspapers to a new federal writers’ project.

These are all grounds for cautious optimism, but even bolder plans are necessary to confront systemic market failure and sustain the journalism that democracy needs. Although we must prevent vulture capitalists from further dismantling newsrooms — while also restructuring legacy outlets to become less market-dependent — most of these efforts will leave predictable gaps beyond cities and elite readerships. With news deserts rapidly expanding across the US, many local media landscapes are already barren with nothing left to resuscitate.

What’s more, entire groups of people, especially communities of color and poor neighborhoods, have never been properly served by local news media. These news divides — exacerbated by a gaping digital divide — will only worsen as local journalism continues to vanish. Such informational redlining is unacceptable for any democratic society.

While private capital from philanthropists and foundations might rescue an outlet here and there, we can’t rely solely on charitable contributions to remedy deep structural inequities. Committed readers willing and able to pay for their news might sustain a few niche outlets or large national newspapers like The New York Times, but subscription models simply won’t suffice for most communities. The journalism crisis can’t be solved by individuals alone, whether average subscribers or rich benefactors. We’re facing a collective action problem that demands government intervention.

Ensuring that all Americans can access a baseline level of reliable news and information requires a federally guaranteed, public media center in every community. Guided by a universal service mission, these multi-media hubs will look like and be governed by the communities they serve. How could this work?

Community newsrooms could be built upon existing public infrastructures — especially public broadcasting and the postal system — and financed by a combination of individual tax vouchers and federal block grants distributed to every county based on population. Public libraries and universities could also help sustain a new public media network — including municipal broadband services — that’s federally funded, decentralized, and democratized under community ownership and control.

2021 might be the year we finally begin building this new public media system. But first we must give up the fantasy that benevolent billionaires, new startups, or the Facebook/Google duopoly will save journalism. We wasted a decade searching for some whiz-bang app or ingenious business model. But a viable business model for local news no longer exists — and besides, journalism shouldn’t be seen as a business, but as a public service. Trusting the market to deliver the news that we need is a fool’s errand.

To be sure, some for-profit outlets will survive — even thrive — but the majority of our information needs must be served by the nonprofit and public sectors. We must face the fact that the commercial era for local journalism is over.

Restructuring our media and communication infrastructures should be part of a broader democracy movement that seeks to transform core institutions, decommodify essential public services, and redress long-standing harms, especially those caused by media institutions misrepresenting and excluding communities of color. By unshackling our media from the market and rebuilding news and information systems from the ground up, we can empower journalists and local communities—and save our democracy in the process.

Victor Pickard is an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.

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